Parliamentary scrutiny on the back burner

Data show that the government is losing sight of Parliament’s primary role — discussion and reconsideration

There must be triumphant laughter in the resting places of those who argued in the 1940s that India is not suited for parliamentary democracy. Their reasons varied from the political culture to the proverbial social diversity of India, or even the Gandhian idea of swaraj that were construed as not easily amenable to forge representative institutions characteristic of parliamentary democracy.

Providing the lead

At the same time, there were others who forcefully defended the appropriateness of parliamentary democracy for India on grounds of representativeness, responsiveness and accountability. They argued that the wielders of power have to continuously demonstrate their responsiveness to public interest on a day-to-day basis in this dispensation; that even a small minority can play a significant role, and that those who wield public power would be subject to a close audit of their actions at the level of their constituencies.

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There is a running thread across the Constituent Assembly Debates that Parliament at the Centre and legislatures in the States would be the key institutions around which parliamentary democracy in India would revolve. While the State legislatures in India have tended to largely imitate Parliament, without evolving an institutional culture of their own to this end, much rested on Parliament to provide a lead in this regard. While there were a few buds of hope in this regard at times, they seem to be withering far too early.

Committee system

Over the years, the Indian Parliament has increasingly taken recourse to the committee system (as its counterparts did elsewhere). This was not merely meant for house keeping, to enhance the efficacy of the House to cope with the technical issues confronting it and to feel the public pulse, but also to guard its turf and keep it abreast to exercise accountability on the government.

Some committees such as the Estimates Committee and Public Accounts Committee (that even go back to the colonial period) have a commendable record in this regard. The executive in independent India, irrespective of the parties in power, was not very disposed to committees of scrutiny and oversight, sometimes on the specious plea that they usurped the powers of Parliament. This was far from the case. They were guardians of the autonomy of the House: the committees of scrutiny and oversight, as the case with other committees of the House, are not divided on party lines, work away from the public glare, remain informal compared to the codes that govern parliamentary proceedings, and are great training schools for new and young members of the House. In the discharge of their mandate, they can solicit expert advice and elicit public opinion. The officialdom in India has often attempted to take cover under political masters to avoid the scrutiny of committees. Besides the standing committees, the Houses of Parliament set up, from time to time, ad hoc committees to enquire and report on specific subjects which include Select Committees of a House or Joint Select committees of both the Houses that are assigned the task of studying a Bill closely and reporting back to the House.

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Some faultlines

While there is much to commend about the routine working of the parliamentary committee system in India, it has not been creative or imaginative. The presiding officers of the Houses who had to give up leadership in this regard have tended to imitate changes and innovations done elsewhere (such as in Britain). The chairman of the Rajya Sabha, being the Vice-President of India, cannot probably distance himself much from the stance of the Cabinet, but even when it comes to the Lok Sabha, very few Speakers, with exceptions such as G.V. Mavalankar, P.A. Sangma and Somnath Chatterjee, have taken cudgels with their party leaders to uphold the autonomy of the House.

However, ground was broken in 1993 when 17 Committees (later increased to 24) of Parliament, the Departmentally-related Standing Committees (DRSCs), drawing members from both Houses roughly in proportion to the strength of the political parties in the Houses, were set up.

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They were envisaged to be the face of Parliament in a set of inter-related departments and ministries. They were assigned the task of looking into the demands for grants of the ministries/departments concerned, to examine Bills pertaining to them, to consider their annual reports, and to look into their long-term plans and report to Parliament.

A gradual marginalisation

It is important to point out that committees of scrutiny and advice, both standing and ad hoc, have been confined to the margins or left in the lurch in the last few years. Data by PRS India brings this out eloquently. While 60% of the Bills in the 14th Lok Sabha and 71% in the 15th Lok Sabha were wetted by the DRSCs concerned, this proportion came down to 27% in the 16th Lok Sabha.

Apart from the DRSCs, the government has shown extreme reluctance to refer Bills to Select Committees of the Houses or Joint Parliamentary Committees. The last Bill referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee was The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Second Amendment) Bill, in 2015. Some of the most momentous Acts of Parliament in recent years such as the radical overhaul of Article 370 that revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and divided the State into two Union Territories were not processed by any House committee.

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Given their large-scale implications and the popular protests against them, the three Bills related to agricultural produce and the three labour Bills that overhauled conditions of work, terms of employment, grievance redress and social security in the monsoon session of Parliament were cases that definitely deserved to be scrutinised by Select Committees of the Houses. But the government used its majority in both the Houses of Parliament and steamrolled the Bills (with hardly any discussion), amid the predictable din and noise that a fragmented Opposition could mount.

Setting aside a culture

There is no dearth of scholarly literature to suggest that the committee system has greatly enhanced the capacity of Parliament to carry out its mandate. So, why has the ruling dispensation neglected this?

One of the reasons given at this point in time is the novel coronavirus pandemic and the urgent need to enact safety measures. The argument of urgency seems spurious given the fact that some of the most controversial Bills introduced in the House, such as relating to labour and the farm sector, were vehemently opposed by the groups concerned and clearly aimed at market reforms. If it is urgency, then the Women’s Reservation Bill, on which there was a broad consensus in the House, should have come up upfront.

Comment | Parliament and its panels

Clearly, this regime is not disposed to a reflection and reconsideration of Bills proposed in the House. It does not seem to believe that the primary role of Parliament is deliberation, discussion and reconsideration, the hallmarks of democratic institutions, but a platform that endorses decisions already arrived at. Further, what is ominous is the encroachment into the powers of a State that some of these bills reflect, and the reinforcement of the central authority they portend.

Valerian Rodrigues is a former professor at Mangalore University and Jawaharlal Nehru University

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